Driving back from an appointment at the state-run Helen Joseph Hospital — how she would cringe at the “place of weeping” that bears her name and which most people call the Hell & Joseph — I see the massive traffic jam snaking back a kilometre down Hendrik Potgieter Road in Roodepoort. The words of a Steely Dan song spring to mind — with an appropriate twist: “Cars to the left of me, truckers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle … ”
I remember the huge JMPD roadblock outside Clearwater Mall I saw two hours earlier. Must be that. Nothing to do, but stick it out. Fifteen minutes later, with four lanes forced into one in the space of less than 50m, like just about everybody else, I get pulled over. With more than 30 cops milling about looking as if they know what they’re doing, I wait. Eventually a short woman ambles over. I open my door (the window winder is due to be repaired in two days’ time). “Driver’s licence,” she demands.
With difficulty I extract it from my wallet. It’s in a special plastic compartment, but she orders me to “give it here”. She engages in the customary banter in Setswana with a tall gangly uniformed chap who’s emerged from nowhere. The language thing is a subtle form of the “new apartheid” intended to make white folk aware who’s the boss now, it’s meant to shut out people like the old “Whites Only” signs on park benches did 20 years ago. She ambles off to one of several JMPD-liveried minivans some distance away. I shrug, a little annoyed at her rudeness and in-your-face arrogance, but then these wannabe “police”, like their counterparts the world over, exist to throw their weight around. No identification on their uniforms, no name offered, no explanation of the reason for the roadblock. It’s just one of the daily displays of “the arrogance of authority” as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu called it and to which all South Africans have had to become accustomed. I carry on listening to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my son’s loaned MP3 player. And wait.
Le petit gendarme has disappeared from view among the dozens of identically uniformed colleagues milling about. It’s the official way to make individual identification impossible in constantly morphing melee of blue and iridescent yellow safety vests. The all-pervading attitude is not the notorious one of mañana — nothing nearly as urgent as that. It’s just Africa-style indifference. This little lot might make a useful picture, I think to myself, and shoot off a couple of shots on my cellphone in several directions.
Suddenly a uniformed cop comes scuttling across the road. He’s right in my face. “What you doing hey? Who you think you are? Who give you permission to take my picture, hey? Hey?” It’s the classical intimidation tactic I first encountered as a young journalist 36 years ago under John Vorster’s apartheid rule (he hated the media nearly as much as today’s ANC rulers do today).
I told the officious man I did not need permission to take pictures in a public place in a democratic South Africa. “I say you do!” he snapped, his nose (and halitosis) millimetres from mine. The message is clear though unspoken. South Africans have come to recognise it instantly and instinctively — give me money and I will go away. But, fact of the matter is I don’t have any and don’t intend going to let this little Hitler, uniform-with-an-attitude intimidate me. I stand my ground. Mistake number one.
He steps back to get better leverage and then suddenly shoves me violently in the chest. I stumbled back four or five paces, wrenching my left knee in one of Gauteng’s infamous potholes. It’s been ravaged over many years from too many rugby tackles, miscellaneous biking tumbles, a car accident and numerous agonising attacks of gout. As I write, it’s ballooned to the size of a netball. I regain my composure and step forward. Mistake number two.
A practiced index finger jabs painfully into my sternum again and again and again. I demand to see his identity document. “I don’t have to show you my ID. Who are you? You are nothing. (jab, jab, jab) I vote ANC. You don’t you fucking white. You’re shit!” By now I am starting to shake at the unexpected violence of the attack. I suppose I’m a chicken at heart and this spitting, snarling upholder of the law, rage and hatred etched into his face, knows how to use that finger to good effect on a much older man’s breastbone.
I demand to see his superior officer. Mistake number three.
“You don’t tell me fokkol to do. I am ANC. I don’t give shit for you and you whites. Now fuck off!”
He sprints back across the road to where one of the JMPD mini-vans is slowly away pulling and his colleagues are calling him. Not a backward glance. They speed off cutting across the emergency lane markings towards Fredenharry Street. This kind of attack hasn’t happened to me since my home invasion by ANC Youth League members in 2006. At 57 I’ve lost my edge, I guess. I walk briskly towards where the little woman was last seen. I am shaking and livid. I demand to see the supervising officer (my stutter probably just makes me sound less authoritative). “I want to see whoever is in charge here … is there anyone in charge here?” The scene looks more like a Nairobi street market than a disciplined, organised police action.
Of course, no one pays attention to me until the little woman somehow appears again and wordlessly gives me back my driver’s licence. “Where is the duty officer?” I demand. “That one, inside there … no, the other one. That one’s in charge,” she says helpfully pointing yet another identically uniformed man sharing a joke with a van-load of colleagues chomping down on huge slices of bread.
I ask for his name as he stepped out and I instinctively stepped back. He says something, and I suddenly remember my notebook and pen. “Please spell that,” I asked. “Zee, double-u, em, ee,” he snapped. I shakily wrote it down. “And your rank?” “Officer,” he said. “We’re all just officers here, but I’m in charge. What’s your problem?” He grabs my arm and steers me away from the van.
“I want to lay a charge of assault and intimidation and racism against one of your men who has just driven away,” I stammered, my mouth as dry as the Kalahari and my whole body shaking. I feel the little stabs of pain in my knee with each step I take. “Where is he? Which one” Zwme demands. “He’s driven off already,” I repeat. And suddenly I realise I am surrounded, hemmed in by a dozen or so police men and women. Something is jabbing into my kidneys.
They are all shouting at once, in front, behind, on all sides. “What-he-do,where-he-now,which-one,show-us.” I felt that old familiar icy claw of terror and helplessness crawl up my back. One tall man towers menacingly over me. “What he do — show me,” he spits, and without thinking I shove him in the chest. Mistake number four.
“Now you assault a police officer,” a particularly rotund and quite ugly female with semi-bleached hair jams her right elbow into my cheek as if to demonstrate how she had been hurt as her colleague had stumbled back. Utterly confused and scared witless, I turn to the one who was in charge (not registering that he’s anything but taking charge of what is clearly becoming a volatile situation). Rotund-ugly-bleached-one meantime spins around and slams her more-than-ample bum as hard as she can into my hip. I realise dimly that, like a corned dog, I am being deliberately goaded to give these thugs any excuse to arrest me. And it is working.
This seems to spark some take-charge in Zwme. I feel my blood pressure peaking and survival-mode taking over. I feel myself about to blindly lash out. I see a gap to Zwme’s right and take it. He waves his horde back. And I outline, as clearly as I can, exactly what had transpired with “the ANC-voter”.
“You have every right to lay charges,” says Zwme, disarmingly calm. “But for that you must go to the police station.” He turns and heads back to the melee at the mini-van. I stand alone, stupefied for several seconds, before turning and stumbling, mute with rage and impotence, back to my car. A woman, presumably Boudicca of the Ample Bum, shouts after me: “Stupid (something). There now suka, (something).”
I leave, shattered, traumatised, seething at my own impotence, stinging from the racism and deluge of hatred, my frenzied mind a wild tangle of should’ves and could’ves. The physical pain will come later. I know I must report the attack, but based on several similar racial attacks in the past, I know the docket will disappear. Nothing will be done.
I look to the left and see a Ford full of black men pass something to another JMPD yellow-vested man. He gives them the thumbs-up. They drive past in front of me laughing. They’d barely stopped as the deal was done. I should feel outrage, but like a wave pulling back down the beach, it washes by me.